CHARLOTTE, N.C. The Souths relationship with the Democratic Party is in flux, and its future is entwined with race, poverty, immigration and education, a panel of UNC Chapel Hill experts told journalists on Sunday.
The South is no longer either Mayberry RFD or the booming sunbelt, said professor Jesse White, who specializes in growth and economic development.
He was one of eight speakers who talked about what the South is and what its becoming at a forum on The South and Presidential Politics 2012: Red States and Purple States.
About 120 people attended the forum at The Charlotte Observer, hosted by the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Most were journalists covering the Democratic National Convention, along with a smattering of local guests, including Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx and former Mecklenburg County commissioner Parks Helms.
The event, which journalism school Dean Susan King introduced as a wonk parade, featured a battery of data about political and demographic trends in Southern states.
Ferrel Guillory, a journalism professor who wrote an analysis for Saturdays Observer, showed one map of Republican dominance and another charting Democratic gains in the 2008 election.
I think that the big question facing us in this election is which map prevails, Guillory said.
Scott Keener of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center said white voters in the South are much more likely than their white counterparts elsewhere to vote Republican and support GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Black voters inside and outside the South are strongly aligned with Democrats and President Barack Obama, while the growing Hispanic minority in the South could take a much stronger role in future elections, as children reach voting age, he said.
This is really a ticking time bomb, in some respects, for the Republican Party, Keener said.
Some panelists said poverty has been ignored by both parties, even as it has grown more prevalent in the South.
We have more poor people and more political leaders who are untroubled by it than other parts of the country, said law professor Gene Nichol, director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.
Several speakers said the Souths economic boom has been stalled by the recession and increased global competition, especially for low-wage jobs. Creating a better-educated work force is a key to the future, they said.
Southern workers have to become more skilled, and whether or not theres the political will to bring this about is a key question, said Peter Coclanis, a history professor who specializes in economics and business.
Kareem Crayton, an associate law professor who studies race and politics, said North Carolina is unique among Southern states in maintaining a significant Democratic presence and in racial coalition building, though he questioned whether those coalitions will prove lasting.
History professor Jacquelyn Hall said she thinks todays racial rifts come not from the legacy of slavery and racism in the South but from deliberate policies and deliberate propaganda that have been part of the Republicans Southern strategy.
Part of that strategy had to do with demonizing the policies that came out of the civil rights movement, Hall said, citing affirmative action, busing and, of course, the welfare queen.
King said the panel was designed to be nonpartisan, though some remarks were more tilted toward the Democrats view than she expected. The forum was linked to the convention but not sponsored by it.
Besides the Observer and the UNC journalism schools board of advisers, sponsors were Ken Eudy, a marketing consultant who was once an Observer political reporter and later executive director of the N.C. Democratic Party, and Cathy Roche, a retired Duke Energy communication executive.